Hilary Mantel Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Hilary Mantel 1952-

(Born Hilary Mary Mantel) British novelist, short story writer, critic, travel writer, and editor.

Mantel is best known as a darkly imaginative storyteller whose work has focused on such topics as family life, isolation, the nature of time, and the consequences of political and social policies. Considered representative of the post-World War II British fiction writers, Mantel is highly regarded for her social satire as well as her historical novels, particularly A Place of Greater Safety (1992), which depicts events during the French Revolution.

Biographical Information

Mantel was born in Derbyshire, England on July 6, 1952, the oldest of three children of Irish Catholic immigrant parents. As a young girl, she was sent to a convent school. In 1970, Mantel began to study law at the London School of Economics and Political Science and received her law degree from the University of Sheffield in 1973. For a year, she worked as a social worker in a geriatric hospital. During this time Mantel developed an interest in writing. When her husband, a geologist, secured employment in Southern Africa in 1977, Mantel moved with him to Botswana. In 1983, the couple moved again, this time to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Both of these settings provided material for Mantel's later novels. Returning to England in 1986, Mantel began writing full-time. She worked as a film critic for the Spectator in the late 1980s and contributed several short stories and reviews to periodicals, including London Magazine, London Review of Books, and Literary Review.

Major Works

In her first novel, Every Day Is Mother's Day (1985), Mantel portrays the bleak lives of Muriel Axon, a mentally ill woman, and her young social worker, Isabel Field. In 1986, Mantel published a sequel to the book, Vacant Possession. Both novels are considered biting satires of the British welfare system and explore such themes as marital and family life, ghosts, prisons, and the impact of social and political policies. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) is a mystery story loosely based on Mantel's time in Saudi Arabia. It focuses on the alienation and repression of women, especially Western women, in a fundamentalist society. Her next novel, Fludd (1990), chronicles the arrival of Fludd, the reincarnation of a sixteenth-century scholar, to a tiny, isolated village in Northern England. In 1992, Mantel published A Place of Greater Safety, a historical novel set during the French Revolution. It follows the stories of three major revolutionaries—Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Maximilien Robespierre—and their role in the history of France. Her next novel, A Change of Climate (1994), was inspired by Mantel's time in South Africa and depicts the lives of two British missionaries and how they handle hardship and tragedy. An Experiment in Love (1995) follows several interconnected young women as they mature into adulthood. The Giant, O'Brien was published in 1998. This historical novel blends fact and fiction, depicting the story of an eighteenth-century Irish giant, Charles O'Brien, and his relationship with a famous London surgeon.

Critical Reception

Many commentators have found it difficult to categorize Mantel's work; her eight novels range from suspense thrillers to black humor to historical fiction. Her diverse interests and work in disparate genres has prompted considerable critical commentary. Regarding her historical fiction, reviewers have argued that Mantel rejects the conventions of the genre, creating a unique amalgamation of fact and fiction. She has been applauded for her vivid imagination, unsentimental writing style, and lively dialogue. Although some critics have called her novels pessimistic and claustrophobic, her work is often praised for its deft exploration of such topical issues as feminism, religion, and the social welfare system in England. Mantel's work is often compared to that of Muriel Spark for its black humor and sharp satirical qualities.